The loss of education

13th June 2008 at 01:00
My headline has two meanings: education is being lost and it is the loser as a result
My headline has two meanings: education is being lost and it is the loser as a result. Sometimes things change fairly deeply and we don't notice it until years later. The depth of how we view education is one thing that is changing and not everybody may have noticed this trajectory of impoverishment.

Many factors can contribute to the idea that education is being transformed into a mere delivery of skills: teacher quality, assessment systems and unsupportive parents. Sometimes identifying and addressing a source of the undermining of education is challenging. Its origin may by nature be elusive, intangible and less "available" as a concrete cause to mull over in the staffroom.

Language helps to define and control how a culture regards the world. Indeed, Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the most famous 20th-century philosopher, stated that the limits of my language are the limits of my world.

In recent previous issues of The TESS, retired as well as serving headteachers have written about their sense of dissatisfaction with the depth of schools inspection and the language of "excellence".

This is relevant: education is becoming dangerously thin. Almost by definition, following the great minds of Plato and Aristotle, this means that it can no longer qualify to be classified as education. Very recently, several world-class universities, including Cambridge and Imperial College, London, revealed that they are devising their own entrance examinations. They have concluded that the current system no longer has any credibility, having discovered that even those with top grades find the university curriculum too difficult. In the past, by contrast, school examination grades did predict later competency.

To diagnose this loss of depth and intellectual quality, one only has to read literature from the Government and other mainstream stakeholders in education. The language they use in documents and newsletters to discuss and to present the nature of education is worryingly weak and, since language constrains thought and feelings, this means readers and listeners are being subjected to a corrosive dumbing-down through this severely narrow discourse on education.

The HMIE guide Journey to Excellence, for example, includes terms such as "action plans", "measureable", "improvement journey", "effective proforma", "revised annually", "clear timescales", "action awareness", "improvement planning", "ambitious vision", "documentation is streamlined", "positive outcomes for children", "making discernible improvements".

Authorities like HMIE are unquestionably interested in ensuring that children are happy and successful. Their sincerity is beyond doubt. The fact is, they are prisoners of this apparently value-free discourse which reflects the current hegemony of business thinking about schooling and school improvement. The paradox in all of this, though, is that the desire to educate through such a linguistic lens will impoverish education, de-skill teachers and lead to difficulties in recruiting them (except those who already talk like that).

It would be fun to see even a spoof version of a possible HMIE document which embodied a radically different model of the nature of teaching and learning, one that the reader can see from the language itself. It would be nice to think that Wittgenstein was mistaken, but one doubts it.

Chris Holligan is a senior lecturer in the school of education at the University of the West of Scotland.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today